What Is Collagen: Health Benefits, Food Sources, Supplements, Types, and More

Collagen is one of the latest buzzwords in health. It’s hard to escape a grocery store without seeing tubs of powdered collagen or creams that claim they’ll boost collagen to keep you looking young for decades to come. But how important is collagen for your health?

Collagen is the most abundant protein in your body, accounting for about 30%. It is the primary building block of your body’s skin, muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments, and other connective tissues. It’s also found in your organs, blood vessels, and intestinal lining. In fact, collagen makes up 75 percent of the skin’s support structure. 

“Think of collagen as the frame of your mattress; it gives [your skin] structure and support,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. To continue with the mattress analogy, the springs are elastic fibers, and the stuffing is hyaluronic acid, he says.

Overall, collagen is made up of three amino acids: glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline. And the main roles of collagen include: 

  • Helping fibroblasts to form in your dermis (middle skin layer), which helps new cells grow.
  • Playing a role in replacing dead skin cells.
  • Providing a protective covering for organs.
  • Giving structure, strength, and elasticity to your skin.
  • Helping your blood to clot.

Are there different types of collagen?

There are many types of collagen: 28 to be exact. However, types 1, 2, and 3 are the most abundant forms of collagen in the body (with type I collagen accounting for 90%). 

  • Type 1 is the major collagen found in the skin, tendons, bones, ligaments, teeth, and certain connective tissues. 
  • Type 2 makes up cartilage and is found in the eyes. 
  • Type 3 also makes up the skin, as well as muscles and blood vessels. But type 3 collagen is sometimes referred to as “baby collagen” because of its role in embryogenesis and early infant life.
  • Type 4 is found in the layers of your skin.
  • Type 5 is found in the cornea of your eyes, some layers of skin, hair, and tissue of the placenta.

What causes collagen levels to decrease?

Unfortunately, collagen starts to degrade with age, and your genetics can affect how fast that degradation happens.

“We lose collagen year after year, and make lower quality collagen,” says Dr. Robinson. Free radicals damage collagen — “they are our skin’s enemy,” says Dr. Zeichner. Environmental factors (like UV rays or pollution), bad lifestyle habits (smoking), and a poor diet (for example, one high in sugar) all create free radical formation, which speeds collagen breakdown.

“Research suggests that smoking allows free radicals to attack collagen fibrils, rendering them weak and of poor quality. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the skin of a smoker tends to look damaged and wrinkled, particularly around the mouth,” says Cyndi Yag-Howard, MD, the CEO, and president of Yag-Howard Cosmetic Dermatology in Naples, Florida. 

Since collagen can’t be measured, some signs and symptoms of decreasing collagen levels include: 

  • Skin that’s wrinkled, crepey, or sagging.
  • Hallowing in and around your eyes and face.
  • Shrinking, weakening muscles, and muscle aches.
  • Stiffer, less flexible tendons and ligaments.
  • Joint pain or osteoarthritis due to worn cartilage.
  • Loss of mobility due to joint damage or stiffness.
  • Gastrointestinal problems due to thinning of the lining of your digestive tract.
  • Issues with blood flow.

Can you eat collagen?

In the long run, it’s impossible to prevent all age-related collagen loss, but it is possible to slow down the process. Even though there is a lack of research to show that eating collagen can directly benefit skin or joint health, many foods that support collagen production are generally recommended as part of a healthful eating plan.

Some foods rich in collagen are tough cuts of meat full of connective tissue like pot roast, brisket, and chuck steak. But a high intake of red meat is not recommended as part of a long-term healthy and environmentally sustainable diet. Collagen is also found in the bones and skin of fresh and saltwater fish.

As for foods that boost collagen production, there are several high-protein foods like fish, poultry, meat, eggs, dairy, legumes, and soy. Collagen production also requires nutrients like zinc that is found in shellfish, legumes, meats, nuts, seeds, and whole grains; and vitamin C from citrus fruits, berries, leafy greens, bell peppers, and tomatoes.

Healthy lifestyle habits to slow the process of decreasing collagen levels

Along with a healthy and balanced diet, here are some habits that may help protect your body’s natural collagen:

  • Wear sunscreen or limit the amount of time spent in direct sunlight (10–20 minutes in direct midday sunlight 3–4 times a week provides adequate vitamin D for most people).
  • Get adequate sleep (for the average person, this means 7–9 hours a night).
  • Avoid smoking or secondhand smoke.
  • Control stress. Chronically high cortisol levels can decrease collagen production.
  • Although the exact connection between exercise and skin quality is unclear, some studies have found that exercise slows down cell activity involved with aging skin. 

What does science say about collagen drinks and supplements?

Most research on collagen supplements is related to joint and skin health. In a review and analysis of 19 studies, published in the International Journal of Dermatology, that had a total of 1,125 participants it was seen that those who used collagen supplements saw an improvement in the firmness, suppleness, and moisture content of the skin, with wrinkles appearing less noticeable. That sounds promising, but it’s unclear if these skin improvements were actually due to collagen. Most of the trials used commercially available supplements that contained more than collagen: vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, coenzyme Q10, hyaluronic acid, and chondroitin sulfate were among the additional ingredients.

Some other randomized, controlled trials show that drinking collagen supplements with high amounts of the peptides, prolylhydroxyproline, and hydroxyprolylglycine can improve skin moisture, elasticity, wrinkles, and roughness. But large, high-quality studies are needed to learn whether commercially available products are helpful and safe to use long-term.

Generally speaking, human studies are lacking and potential conflicts of interest exist in this area because most—  if not all — of the research on collagen supplements are funded or partially funded by related industries that could benefit from a positive study result. This makes it difficult to determine how effective collagen supplements truly are and if they are worth their often hefty price.

A downside of taking these collagen supplements is the unknown of what exactly they contain or if the supplement will do what the label promotes. There are also concerns of collagen supplements containing heavy metals. This is especially crucial to be aware of because the Food and Drug Administration does not review supplements for safety or effectiveness before they are sold to consumers in the United States. 

Should you try collagen supplements or drinks?

At this time, there isn’t enough proof that taking collagen pills or consuming collagen drinks will make a difference in skin, hair, or nails. Especially since our bodies cannot absorb collagen in its whole form. If your goal is to improve skin texture and elasticity and minimize wrinkles, you’re better off focusing on sun protection and using topical retinoids. 

However, if you choose to try collagen supplements or drinks, keep these things in mind:

  • Review the list of ingredients and the protein profile. 
  • Avoid supplements with too many additives or fillers.
  • Products containing high quantities of prolylhydroxyproline and hydroxyprolylglycine are better at reducing wrinkles and improving the moisture content of the skin.
  • Consult your doctor before starting any new supplements (if you are prone to gout or have other medical conditions that require you to limit protein, you should not use collagen supplements or drinks).


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